Monthly Archives: August 2014

Grading Stukel

Recently, in an op-ed in The Chronicle of Higher Education, a professor implored us to exercise our “critical-thinking skills.” As someone who taught those skills as an adjunct for several years, I thought it would be appropriate if I took her up on her offer, critiquing her argument the same way that I might a student in one of my classes.

Catherine,

In the interests of developing your skills with argumentation, I thought that I might point out a few areas where I felt your writing could be improved:

“I cannot comprehend why any adjunct professor complains with such entitlement about their inability to get a full-time teaching position; but then again, we do live in a new world where every child is special, everyone gets a trophy, and everyone thinks they are privileged.”

Here you have committed the fallacy of hasty generalization. In the future, try to avoid making blanket statements without sufficient evidence to prove your claim. Be wary of words such as “every” and “everyone,” as even one exception renders your argument logically invalid, while a number of exceptions makes even an informal argument appear weak. Also, the “everyone gets a trophy” trope constitutes a thought-terminating cliché, appealing as it does to a widely-held but difficult-to-prove bit of folk wisdom about “kids today.” Finally, one could construe your inability to “comprehend” as being an argument from ignorance: because you do not understand why someone would complain, you make the assumption that there is no reason to do so.

“It’s bad enough that society has raised a bunch of entitled young adults who claim to be victimized when they can’t find a full-time job. Now our adjunct professors are spinning such garbage with such drama. No wonder our new generation of graduates is filled with pipe dreams and no work ethic.”

Loaded language – “entitled,” “garbage,” “pipe dreams” – has a tendency to prejudice the reader against your argument, therefore it is best avoided. You also appear to be guilty of committing a false cause fallacy, attributing graduates’ lack of work ethic (which in itself is a hasty generalization) to their adjunct professors’ claims of victimization, when any link between the two, even if the dubious validity of your premise is taken for granted, has yet to be demonstrated. Because the thesis of your argument – so-called “whining adjuncts” exert a negative influence on students – rests on this causal link, this error in logic is particularly glaring.

“Why should I have to tell you that life is about compromise? As a career- and technical-education professor, I tell my students all the time that they may not land their dream job, but that they still have to work. I also tell them to get as much skill as they can, and acquire different talents, to have a variety of opportunities professionally. So when I read an article left in my box by an adjunct-teachers’ union about a dying, broken-hearted 83-year-old adjunct professor, I thought to myself, ‘Is that the kind of person we want teaching our young?’ Do we want the person who was not able to be self-sufficient, pay their electric bill, or put food on their table? As one of my friends might say, ‘Time to put on your big-girl panties!’”

The first question of your paragraph is a loaded one, in that it assumes that your hypothetical opponent is unwilling to compromise in his or her goals, and that this quality has hindered him or her in attaining a steady source of income. Also, in noting that your advice to students is that, while “they may not land their dream job… they still have to work,” you have committed the straw man fallacy, implying that the counter-argument for “whining adjuncts” is that adjuncts do not wish to work unless and until they get a particular job, while a better representation of the argument that adjuncts present is that they are, in fact, working and only wish to make their jobs better, a desire that they seek to fulfill by vocalizing the ways in which adjuncting could be improved, or “whining,” as you put it. In addition, when you refer to college-age students as “our young,” you are employing a fallacious appeal to emotion, a variation on the common thought-terminating cliché “think of the children.” Lastly, your criticism of Margaret Mary Vojtko is a rather ghoulish example of ad hominem argumentation, resting as it does on the unproven assumption that one’s inability to generate enough income to avoid financial deprivation is an indicator of inferior pedagogical skill.

“Perhaps the position is filled, or the tumblers in the universe just didn’t fall into the right place for you. Or maybe you aren’t aware that you are annoying your colleagues with your opinions about everything, at every meeting, and at every event. Perhaps your full-time colleagues wouldn’t select you for full-time work because you are not likable. Perhaps you have a reputation for mediocrity, or you don’t fully engage your students. Did you ever think of another profession? Would you advise your own students to work part time with no benefits when there are plenty of full-time opportunities in this world just waiting for them?”

Although your reasoning for why an adjunct may not be able to attain the position that he or she seeks is initially vague, alluding to a bizarre conception of reality that you refer to as “the tumblers of the universe,” it quickly runs afoul of something akin to the furtive fallacy, ascribing negative qualities to adjuncts (that they are annoying, unlikable, mediocre, or disengaged) without any evidence to sustain such inflammatory statements. You have also produced a false dilemma, supposing that, for adjuncts, it is a simple choice between part-time and full-time opportunities, when the reality is far more complex.

“Maybe this poor adjunct professor was happy? Maybe she didn’t have a family? If that is the case I commend her for her values and for her happiness. Sometimes we fail to achieve happiness no matter what our line of work or income is. Maybe she found inner peace? Maybe she liked the balance.”

Here, your logic becomes inconsistent. Is this poor adjunct to be commended for her “values” and her “happiness,” or should she not be given the opportunity to teach due to her inability to secure gainful employment?

“What if she wasn’t happy? Why couldn’t she have worked for a non-for-profit? Or worked in administration? She certainly could have still taught part time, right? Perhaps she didn’t have enough drive to seek employment elsewhere? Perhaps she had poor executive function or planning skills? Although I doubt it; one doesn’t earn a doctorate without a reasonable amount of planning and executive function.”

Many of these questions appear to be rooted in confirmation bias: working from the assumption that anyone who does not have full-time employment must be deficient in some way, you cast about for potential answers – inflexibility in job searches, an amotivational attitude, “poor executive function or planning skills” – in an attempt to prove your hypothesis without any concrete evidence to justify your accusations.

“I can only say that I have had full-time employment with benefits both inside and outside working in academia for over 30 years. I made choices. Life is a series of compromises. If you need to earn a livable wage with benefits and can’t do so in one profession—then choose to explore your options. Don’t spend a lifetime sacrificing for something and then complain about it. Become a role model to your own children, family, and friends. Be happy that you were given many gifts—and most of all use those critical-thinking skills.”

The crux of your argument here – that your success is simply the result of good choices – rests on an appeal to authority, which is erroneous because it presumes that the mere fact of your success qualifies you as an expert on making good decisions, when it could be attributed to luck, or “the tumblers of the universe” falling into place, as you would put it. Without knowing the specifics of your situation, I could not venture to guess how much of your success you owe to your own decision-making abilities and how much you owe to chance, though you clearly have no qualms about speculating on the reasons for the lack of success in others.

Judging the paper as a whole, I would have to say that your argument is not deserving of a passing grade. While your thesis may be valid – that adjuncts who complain are less effective teachers than those who do not – your argument, relying as it does on a host of logical fallacies, loaded language, and wild speculation, is not convincing. Next time, please research your topic more thoroughly and remember that, when addressing an academic audience, the content of your writing is subject to the critical review of your peers. I do hope that you do not take the failing grade that I have given you as a reflection of personal bias, but rather, as an attempt to strengthen your work in the future. As scholars, our first duty is to knowledge, and peer review, flawed as it may be, is the best means we have to ensure that scholarly work is as rigorous and exacting as possible. And while I realize that my status as “only” an adjunct – or now, as an “independent scholar,” if we want to be charitable – does not afford me the institutional privilege of being recognized as your peer, I hope that you will see that, in the unmediated realm of pure ideas, we are all working towards the same goals, the pursuit, refinement, and transmission of wisdom, and you will understand that I bear you no malice, only a desire to bring us all closer to the Truth, as quixotic of a quest as that may be.

Final Grade: F (Needs Improvement)


Lessons on Retention from a High School Dropout

At a community college, retention is the name of the game, and the game, as The Wire memorably put it, is rigged. Shrinking financial support from state and federal governments, often allocated on a punitive, “show us the numbers or else” basis has resulted in escalating pressure on teachers to make sure that their students return to class no matter what. And adjuncts, who have the fewest job protections, are often given the students who are most likely to drop: incoming freshmen who are still on the fence about whether college is right for them, and who may be taking developmental/remedial courses that can be a challenge for even great teachers to make interesting to adult learners.

Now, I am certainly not arguing that instructors should not make every reasonable attempt to keep students engaged – although what qualifies as “reasonable” when one is being paid as little as twelve grand a year to teach a 4/4 load, as was my experience, is definitely up for debate – but the idea that some students will inevitably drop out should be non-controversial. And anyone who looks at retention rates in clinical, numerical terms, particularly as a means of assessing the effectiveness of a teacher, cannot help but overlook individual stories of true “student success” that do not readily fit into the data.

Take the student I had one semester: a gunshot victim who had once owned an extensive private library, yet who, even years after the incident, had such difficulty with reading comprehension that she was placed in a developmental reading course. Rarely absent from class, she soldiered through the semester despite suffering from one debilitating bout with her disabilities after another, until the day that a flooded apartment made her decide that school was simply too much for her to handle. I did not feel that I had any right to argue; she thanked me profusely for the class, and I signed her withdrawal form.

Or how about the student for whom English was a second language, who attended class without fail and clearly wanted to improve her writing, yet who could not produce work that was better than a D, and who probably needed to have been placed in a developmental writing course rather than the Comp 101 class that I was teaching. Though I did my best, meticulously articulating the ways in which her writing could be made better and pointing her in the direction of the tutoring lab – where I worked to supplement my adjunct income – I did not feel that she had achieved a competency with her writing that would merit a passing grade. But while her writing may not have been good enough to pass the course, it was definitely better. Does that not count for something?

And then there’s the student… well, let’s refer to him as “J.” I was warned of his arrival by some of my students the previous semester, who eagerly volunteered stories (both during class and in their journals) of his epic misdeeds in high school: nothing that would be out of place in a teen comedy from the late ’90s, but more than enough to raise a few eyebrows in small-town Alabama.

Sure enough, J showed his stripes early on as the kind of student teachers generally prefer did not exist. He was habitually late for class, when he decided to show up, and his contributions to class discussions were often little more than the kind of rowdy tales that may have endeared him to his friends but had little to do with the topics at hand.

But there was something about J that made me believe I could make a difference, even with a student who had “withdraw or fail” written all over him, even as an adjunct who – at least once – had to pay for gas using spare change so that my car wouldn’t break down on the way to class. Maybe it was the challenge. Or maybe it was that he reminded me of myself, for some reason. After all, we had both went to the same high school; we had, in fact, both dropped out of the same high school in the tenth grade, as so many of our cohort had. I had been so soured on education that, were it not for community college, I would not have went on to pursue a master’s degree, and though the irony that I was now using that degree to teach in the same community college for less than minimum wage had begun to wear on me, I couldn’t help but feel that my role in the classroom still held value for my students.

After taking his first quiz, J announced (a bit too proudly, I felt) that he had “bombed” it. Before I could launch into my well-rehearsed speech that the quizzes were more for practice than for evaluation, that scores inevitably improved with time, and that grades would be influenced far more by the essays that we had not yet begun to write, J interrupted me.

“That’s okay,” he said. “I’m stupid. Don’t worry about it. My teachers have always called me stupid.”

I wish I could say I was surprised, but as I said: I went to the same school that he did. I knew that students who made good grades were praised; students who did poorly were ridiculed.

Once, a cousin, who also attended the school, told me a story. While running late for class one day, he was stopped in the hall by the principal, who told him to “stop wasting everyone’s time, drop out, and go work in a trailer plant.”

My cousin left the school that day and never went back.

I doubt he was an exception; more likely, this advice was given to countless students over the years, students who would leave the business of serious learning to the wealthier kids, the ones from unbroken homes. Or just the ones who would be more likely to do as they were told: in class, on time, eyes forward, mouths shut.

It had been sixteen years – half my life – since I dropped out, since the arbitrary authority and “teaching” by rote memorization and the petty power struggles over the right to not be called a faggot in the halls had chased me away from school. I didn’t know just why J had dropped out, but I knew he had had his reasons. And being called “stupid” by every teacher that one has ever had probably ranked pretty high amongst them.

So I thought I would try something different.

“J,” I said. “You’re not stupid. Ignorant, maybe. Uneducated, maybe. But certainly not stupid. Because stupid is a word that defines you as a person, that limits you. But we are all ignorant of things, until we learn them. That’s what education is for. To learn the things that we need to learn so that we lose our ignorance.”

I don’t know if I should have said all that. In retrospect, calling a student “ignorant” or “uneducated,” even in the context of encouragement, can’t help but sound pretentious, evoking the worst aspects of the “sage on the stage” mentality to which teachers can fall prey. At the time, it sounded good, but I am probably fortunate that he didn’t file one of those dreaded “official complaints.”

On the other hand…

J started talking to me between classes. He told me about his girlfriend, how she was studying to be a dental hygienist at another college and was helping him with his developmental math homework on the weekends. He told me about the odd jobs he worked, how he had recently received a speeding ticket that rendered his time spent working at a chicken plant, choking on clouds of literal shit, meaningless. He told me about one of his friends from high school, how he had Facebooked him recently concerning a workplace accident; his arm had been ripped off at the elbow by a machine, and he was “pretty depressed” about it.

And when I asked him what he planned to do with his degree, he told me that he planned to become an electrician. I wished him well. I wanted him to succeed; I didn’t want him to end up working at a place where one is forced to go back to work the second one is out of the hospital after having a limb removed due to lax factory regulations, as was the case with his friend.

On the other hand, I was an adjunct. I was hardly qualified to be handing out career advice.

J didn’t pass. He came in on one of the last days of class and told me that he would be withdrawing from the college. He had been taking five classes on top of working several part-time jobs, and it was just too much for him. Instead, he and his mother had decided to take out a loan to attend a camp for electrical linemen. He shook my hand, thanked me for being the best teacher he had ever had, and then walked out.

To any administrators looking over my grades for the semester, J was an F. He had Failed; and by their accounts, I suppose, I had Failed him.

But had I?

A friend of mine – the friend that I talked about in my last post – told me recently that his failures haunted him. He even kept count: 42. 42 failures in seven years. He couldn’t help but think that he could have done more.

Maybe I could have done more in all of the cases I mentioned. Maybe we could all do more. I believe that good teachers are their own worst critics, which also makes us our own worst enemies, when it comes to standing up for our rights. Yet if we don’t, who will?

Just as every doctor who loses a patient is not a poor physician, every instructor who loses a student is not a shoddy teacher, and just as we don’t judge doctors simply on the number of patients saved – some patients being beyond the reach of any medical intervention – we shouldn’t judge teachers by as simplistic of a criterion as “retention.” A good teacher will tend to retain more students, all things being equal, sure; but in education, things are never equal. Despite our best efforts, some students are simply going to Fail. And sometimes, that might not even be such a bad thing.

How do you improve student retention? I don’t know; it’s a complicated question. But, speaking as an adjunct who just quit teaching because I couldn’t make a living at it, how about improving teacher retention? There’s a start.


I Just Don’t Want to Die an Adjunct

He texted me for a ride the week before last. After seven years as an adjunct history instructor, he had an interview scheduled for a full-time position, and no way to get there. In much the same way that being an adjunct is sort of like having a job and sort of like not having one, he sort of had a car and sort of did not. Unable to make the payments on his Yaris, he had long since surrendered the title to his father, who had pressed the vehicle into service as the family car. As it happened, his younger sister had a job interview on the same day that he did, so he reached out to me, his friend for over a decade, ever since we were undergrads.

After he agreed to cover gas and meals, I made the trip, a four-hour drive that seemed far shorter on the turnaround, with my friend of over a decade matching me rant for rant as we railed at the capriciousness of the system that had deemed us worthy of teaching in its schools yet unworthy of being paid a living wage for the privilege. To the rest of the world, we may have been nothing more than two poorly-dressed and road-weary men, notable only for possessing grossly unmarketable degrees in the humanities, but for those few hours, we regained some semblance of the fire that had once made the realization of our dreams seem like little more than a triviality, and a decent job that paid a decent salary, merely an afterthought.

But time has a way of grounding us all, and though we shared innumerable fantasies regarding the overthrow of contingent labor in higher education, much more of our time was spent on preparing for the interview ahead: a seven-minute teaching presentation and a round of eight or so questions that would determine whether or not my friend, an adjunct with seven years of classroom experience, would be passed along to a second interview with the college president, who would make the final decision. In this regard, I was luckier than my friend, having made it to round two a couple of times, while he never had. Then again, job interviews are neither horseshoes nor hand grenades: proximity to success is only another flavor of failure, one far more bitter than it is sweet. Both of us remain in the same boat; it becomes leakier year by year.

My friend confessed to me that this would be the last year he would adjunct, if he did not get the full-time position. He taught because he loved it, but he was tired, and though he was only in his early thirties, his body could not take much more of the struggle. Diagnosed with Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease, once considered a form of muscular dystrophy, he had been warned from an early age that his life would be both shorter and more painful than most, but he had always treated the grim pronouncements of his physicians with a measure of skepticism. After all, he was still alive, still ambulatory, years after most doctors had predicted he would be either in a wheelchair or in the ground.

He had the interview, and it went as these things often do, in my experience. He felt confident that his teaching presentation went well – how could it not have, with seven years in the classroom behind him? – and that his responses to the interviewers’ questions were thoughtful and delivered with aplomb. Before leaving, he was instructed to wait by his phone, a remark that he returned to again and again over the following few days, inferring from it, as he had, that a call was forthcoming. Like all of us, I suppose, my friend was quick to seize on any tell on the part of an interviewer, no matter how miniscule; once, he had even received a hug, a tiny gesture that couldn’t help but loom large in the mind of someone for whom a callback would be literally a life-changing event.

Although I offered to let him stay longer, optimistically assuming that his return would be imminent, he could not, obligated as he was to appear at a pain management clinic, where he would be forced to submit to a urine test in order to receive the medication that allowed him to do the things that most of us take for granted. Too little, too much, or the wrong kind of drugs in my friend’s system would have meant immediate expulsion from the program. Recent legislation aimed at combating the abuse of opioids had made things tough for those in legitimate need of relief from chronic pain.

Pain is an inherently unquantifiable experience, and it is easy for those who are not in its thrall to discount the suffering that others go through. I will never truly be able to experience the pain of my friend, but I do know that my uncle, whom I only know through stories told to me by my father, suffered from muscular dystrophy, and in his desperation to be rid of the painful symptoms of the disease, asked doctors to sever the dying nerves that were shooting electrical signals of pure agony throughout his body. He died on the operating table, but my friend sees even this tragedy in a positive light, believing as he does that even death is preferable to a life of unrelenting torture.

After enduring the humiliation of pissing in a cup to ensure that he was neither abusing nor profiting from his prescribed narcotics, my friend went over the results of the latest round of tests that his doctor had ordered, as a mere formality more than anything else. My friend had been through this charade more times than he could count; once, a specialist had essentially told him to go home to die, as there was nothing that modern medical science could do for him. He would relate such tribulations to me from time to time, always with a shrug, an eye-roll, an air of “Can you believe that?” He has always had a talent for seeing the humor in a situation, no matter how dire; no doubt, this talent has aided him tremendously as an adjunct, where our entire existence sometimes feels as if it is nothing more than the punchline to some cruel joke.

After my friend’s ordeal with the pain management clinic was over, I spent the next day and a half with him before returning home to my own (more or less) private struggles. We ate free at a restaurant as a result of our prowess at trivia, attended an impromptu and highly unofficial wake for the late Robin Williams, and waited… waited… waited… for a call that never came. It seemed that my friend would spend another year as an adjunct. Maybe his last.

“I just don’t want to die an adjunct.”

When he said those words, I couldn’t help but remember the story of Margaret Mary Vojtko. I didn’t want my friend to die an adjunct, either. I don’t want to, myself. For that matter, I don’t think any of us should.

Here’s to an end to contingency. And here’s to a long life for my friend. May he defy the odds. May we all.


Poem: Object Permanence

We walk, and we are all beasts when we walk,
inspiring, expiring, beating the earth
with feet of clay, greedy engines of life
fighting every second to keep fighting.

The mud is thick, here, and so quick to mire
our steps, wrest shoes away; easy to lose
the path with a path so worn, our struggles
soon consume us, entomb us, blind our sky.

Once – remember? – we lived in that sky, there.
Our homes are still there, unlocked, welcoming.
We have chosen the mud, the earth, for now,
because this filth holds appeal for angels.

We have hidden our true face behind hands,
and we are fool enough to think it gone.
This mock cruelty we practice on our young,
rebel angels joining the mortal choir.

And so I see you, and then I am gone,
and then I return, and we play this game
so well, we forget it is but a game,
and we toss the board, tears choking anger.

Take my hand; see half the face you once knew,
before you were borne to this soiled realm.
We walk, and I place my hand on your back;
I feel the faint feathers of wings, folded.


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